Thursday, March 19, 2015

Shusterman on Living Phllosophically

"It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour."  Thoreau, Walden, quoted in Thinking Through the Body (288) (This and the next two quotes are taken from “Chapter 13:  Somaesthetic Awakening and the Art of Living:  Everyday Aesthetics in American Transcendentalism and Japanese Zen Practice.”) 

"to live philosophically means living in a waking rather than sleeping state...the discipline of awakened life can provide everyday experience with deep aesthetic enrichment and even spiritual enlightenment"  Shusterman (288-9)

"We fail to see things as they really are with the rich, sensuous resplendence of their full being because we see them through eyes heavy with conventional habits of viewing them and blinded by stereotypes of meaning."  Shusterman (291)

"But apart from … sublime, quasi-mystical moments of grasping a timeless now, there is the simpler yet significant value of attentive awareness of our mundane experience, of being fully present in what we do and where we are so that we can more fully profit from what our surroundings actually offer."  Shusterman (299).  

"Through...heightened, appreciative awareness and the mindful movements and actions that emerge from it, one can achieve extraordinary aesthetic experience in everyday living"  Shusterman (302)

It is only in the context of deep sympathy for these quotes that I made the following interrogatory comments.  Both Shusterman and I see the task of living philosophically partly in terms of Socrates.  (See his Chapter 3 “Self-Knowledge and Its Discontents:  From Socrates to Somaesthetics.”)  This is not surprising.  Socrates was one of my earliest philosophical heroes, and that is probably true for most Western philosophers.  He taught that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I still believe that to be true, taking it to mean something like:  to make life worth living (to enhance value in one's life) one needs to (at the very least) reflect on the key concepts that guide one's perception and action, reflect deeply, constantly questioning, constantly coming up with hypothesis to test, never accepting one of these as the final answer, recognizing that the only thing worthy of the name "wisdom" comes out of this process.  But this does not, on the face of it, seem to be the same as the aesthetic life.  Can the philosophical life as exemplified by Socrates and the aesthetic life work together?  (Shusterman, as inventor and promoter of somaesthetics, would, of course, add that the examined life should also include examination and improvement of one’s bodily sensations.)

Socrates also plays a leading role in Plato's Symposium where we get a different take on the philosophical life, one that sees it ultimately as aesthetic.  As one engages in philosophical examination one is also in search of beauty.  One travels up a ladder of love, where the object of love is always something of beauty.  The final stage is apprehension of Beauty itself, the eternal Form of Beauty, which holds roughly the same place in the metaphysics of the Symposium as the Form of the Good does in The Republic.  Recognition of Beauty itself is seeing the vast sea of beauty in the world as we experience it:  it is being able to recognize when beauty is present.  I take this to mean that close attention to the aesthetic dimension of human existence can be one path to an awakened state of being, which, in Plato’s account, happens when one grasps the eternal Form of Beauty or the Good.
The issue that Shusterman has raised concerning how to live philosophically is an important one for everyday aesthetics.  In response to the question "what is the point of everyday aesthetics" his answer would be, not to simply open up and explore a new field of inquiry in philosophy but to help us learn how to live philosophically where living philosophically is not just a matter of examining concepts and arguments but is also of paying attention to the phenomena so that rich sensuous qualities are revealed.  Much more is involved as well, particularly related to somatic self-improvement.  The question remains how these two things, examining concepts and paying attention for somatic self-improvement, can fit together.  How can you both examine life in Socrates’ sense and also live life with the intensity of perception and orientation to somatic self-improvement required by, for instance, Zen practice? (292).   (A high point in Shusterman's book is his discussion of his aesthetic experience at a Zen monastery.)

Shusterman's Zen-influenced recommendation for living the philosophical life of heightened awareness is simplicity, slowness, and focusing on the here and now.  Let us first consider the issue of simplicity.  It is hard to understand what exactly simplicity means in the context of “the examined life,” especially when we reflect on the life and activity of Socrates.  When we engage in Socratic dialogue (which is pretty much how Socratic characters examine life under the direction of Socrates or some other Socrates-like character, for example Parmenides in Plato's Parmenides) things become increasingly complex:  simple things are no longer so simple.  We thought we knew what, for example, piety was, and then we discover that we are ignorant (the result of Plato's Euthyphro).  Instead of one definition for a concept we have several, none of which are fully adequate, even though the later, more complex ones, are taken as better.  So where is simplicity in all of this?  A possible answer is that grasping Beauty itself, or any Form, is not a matter of grasping a complex proposition but grasping something that is simple, although this can only come at the end of a process that is itself complex.

Although accepting the project of examining life, Shusterman rejects the Socratic search for definition as found in the dialogues.  In doing so, he seems to reject the project of the philosophical life as a life of concept-examination.  In the end, though, I think that these two approaches to the philosophical life can be reconciled.  In aesthetics, the Socratic quest for definition is most discussed in relation to the definitions of art, beauty and aesthetic experience.  In “Somaesthetics and the Limits of Aesthetics” Shusterman attacks the “wrapper model of theory” (134), i.e. the belief that one should construct theory by way of a definition of X in terms of necessary and sufficient definitions, for example in trying to define are.  This is largely because such a theory, with regards to art, attempts to “conserve the conventional limits of art” (134). I agree with this critique of contemporary attempts to define art.  However, Socrates himself (or, as portrayed by Plato) never tries to preserve the conventional limits of the concept under consideration.  He questions, for example, Euthyphro’s conventional definition of piety.  In rejecting the wrapper model, Shusterman appears to reject the Socratic quest itself, although perhaps he wouldn’t if he accepted my analysis of the result of that quest as grasping something that is both complex in one respect and simple in another.  I agree with Morris Weitz that, although a “real definition” of “art” in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions will never be found (and is impossible), the process of seeking and coming up with what he called “honorific definitions” of art is immensely valuable.  Moreover, previous attempts to define art, rather than simply being failures at real definition, were unconsciously exactly that.[1]  Hence, unlike Shusterman, I value the Socratic project of trying to come up with definitions as long we do not take seriously the idea usually (perhaps falsely, as I have suggested) attributed to Plato that the end product of this quest is description of an eternal unchanging object, i.e. a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.[2] 

[1] Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15, no. 1 (1956): 27-35. Weitz’s strategy can be applied to all philosophical debates, but this need not be argued for here. 
[2] See my “The Socratic Quest in Art and Philosophy,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, no. 3 (1993): 399-410 for a more positive approach to Socratic dialogue and its relevance to the quest for essences.  See also my “Metaphor and Metaphysics,” Metaphor and Symbolic Activity (Special Issue on Metaphor and Philosophy) 10. no. 3 (1995): 205-222.

No comments: